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How faulty is the current education system?

  • #1
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Main Question or Discussion Point

Having spent five months as an undergraduate with physics major, I found that there are two types of students who come to study physics: 1. For a job, and 2. For pursuing research. This thread is concerned with the second type only. Among many other problems, here are two that have concerned me the most in the past and at present.

#1: Teaching things that have no application in the student's field of interest

As an undergrad, I have to study classical mechanics (CM) in 1st semester. Now, I have taken some online courses in QM and QFT, read a number of books on these topics, and read papers on experimental particle physics research almost everyday. I never encounter CM while studying these topics. You need Lagrangian and Hamiltonian dynamics, but you don't need CM otherwise, right?

The fundamental question is, why can't the education system customize the syllabus according to a student's field of interest? The system is teaching me things that I most probably don't even need.

Now you might say that some things are to be studied as they are the basics. But what percentage of papers published every year in Physics are on/strictly require, as a prerequisite, classical mechanics? How many experimental particle physicists working on accelerators are required to derive moments of inertia of cylinders and cones? And how many string theorists require the derivation of Euler's equations in their work?

If the so-called "basics" are not applicable in the student's field of interest, why study them rigorously? The student can always study them himself if they are ever required, isn't it?

#2: Marks in exams guarantee knowledge and vice-versa

I am seriously interested in research, and am giving my best to prepare myself in my field of interest. I have spoken to some people about this, but no one seems interested unless I have great qualifications. Tell me: does marks guarantee knowledge? How can the marks in an exam determine my knowledge and ability to do research?

I get a paper of 50 marks full of questions in classical mechanics. If I am unable to answer, they draw the conclusion that I am not meant for physics. How is this a fair judgement? I can't do the difficult problems in CM, but I can read, understand and apply what I have learnt in QM. And with some help, I believe I will be able to learn advanced topics as well. Why am I being forced to study and being judged on topics which neither interest me, nor are applicable in my field of interest?

If you test a physicist, who works with accelerators, on renormalization, will that be a proper way of judging his/her knowledge?

What are your thoughts on these?
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
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As a first-semester physics undergrad, there's literally no way for you to know with such specificity what you're going to do in the future. This is a super common mistake, and it's one I've made as well.

I did my undergrad in computational physics, and I loved it. I had no intentions of switching. I didn't take electronics, solid state physics, fluid dynamics, or a lot of other courses, loading up on computational physics courses instead. When I applied to grad school, I took a shot and saw a professor who was doing some really cool stuff with nanoscale science, so I applied. I'm 4 years into working for that advisor.

Now, I make microscopic circuits that work as microswimmers! But undergrad me didn't take electronics, solid state, or fluid dynamics! Now grad student me is really suffering.

How many experimental particle physicists working on accelerators are required to derive moments of inertia of cylinders and cones?
All of them can relearn how to do it in 60 seconds flat, because they know there's a way, and they know where to look! So when it does come up, it's a non-issue.

But what percentage of papers published every year in Physics are on/strictly require, as a prerequisite, classical mechanics?
I challenge you to find one that doesn't. That sounds snarky, but it's not, I'm really challenging you to find a journal article that doesn't assume the reader has some base knowledge of CM.
 
  • #3
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I challenge you to find one that doesn't. That sounds snarky, but it's not, I'm really challenging you to find a journal article that doesn't assume the reader has some base knowledge of CM.
My point is, for that base knowledge, one doesn't have to study CM rigorously and give an exam on it.
 
  • #4
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All of them can relearn how to do it in 60 seconds flat, because they know there's a way, and they know where to look! So when it does come up, it's a non-issue.
Well, almost everyone knows where to look. But do they need that regularly?
 
  • #5
PeroK
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What are your thoughts on these?
So, the deal is this. You want to do active research in QM, say. And, you want to be hyper-efficient by studying QM, advanced QM and further advanced QM, and nothing else?

Okay, but then you come to, say, Electromagnetic phenomena. You've never heard of a magnetic dipole moment. You're completely lost in applying QM to EM phenomena.

So, grudgingly, you might concede that you have to study "classical" EM.

So, you start studying EM and you're looking at a spinning charged sphere. And you've never heard of (classical) angular momentum, or moments of inertia or rigid body motion. So, you're stuck there too.

That said, I think it is an interesting question of how advanced you can get in physics without really nailing the basics. We had someone not that long ago who was (genuinely) trying to do a PhD in Cosmology without wasting time learning SR or vector calculus. Maybe eventually he understood cosmology on some abstract level and maybe he is actively researching and his PhD work is progressing. But, it was not pleasant to watch.

At the very least you are running the risk that one day, after years of study, the whole intellectual edifice that you have built up just collapses like a house of cards.
 
  • #6
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@PeroK Don't get me wrong. I had mentioned this in the OP:
If the so-called "basics" are not applicable in the student's field of interest, why study them rigorously?
Classical EM is certainly not among the basics that I described as "not applicable".

Secondly, I am not discouraging to study the basics, even classical mechanics, but I am encouraging to relax the amount of rigor if the student's field of interest doesn't call for it. It is not acceptable if the student doesn't know what angular momentum is, but there should not be a problem if he forgets how to derive the moment of inertia of a sphere.
 
  • #7
PeroK
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@PeroK Don't get me wrong. I had mentioned this in the OP:

Classical EM is certainly not among the basics that I described as "not applicable".

Secondly, I am not discouraging to study the basics, even classical mechanics, but I am encouraging to relax the amount of rigor if the student's field of interest doesn't call for it. It is not acceptable if the student doesn't know what angular momentum is, but there should not be a problem if he forgets how to derive the moment of inertia of a sphere.
Then the question is to what extent do you have to learn things by doing them and to what extent by simplying remembering that they can be done.

If you can't derive the MoI of a sphere, then your mathematics is in such a parlous state, that you're not fit for any advanced physics. How are you going to research QM if you can't integrate? Come on!

In fact, this is a key point you are missing. You really need the tools and techniques learned studying the lower level physics; both mathematical and physical. The insights and ways of thinking.

The MoI of a sphere is a good example. I suggest that not only should you be able to do it, but you should be so comfortable that you can do it several ways. So, when you come to the spinning charged sphere, the underlying mechanics is very easy for you and you can focus on the EM theory.

If you are really floundering around trying to integrate over a sphere, you'll be bogged down at every step. EM, QM and GR are big subjects and you've got to be well-prepared for them.

You see students posting on here all the time. Trying to learn relatively advanced physics and just missing the basics.
 
  • #8
DEvens
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I would say that trying to skip large parts of the curriculum and go straight to some special interest is a huge risk that is unlikely to produce good results.

In undergrad I did a project that relied heavily on Weinberg's book "Gravitation and Cosmology." I basically wore out the section on gravitational collapse. And he used some things from thermodynamics and the behavior of gasses and such.

At the time, I didn't think too carefully about that. So, he knows about equations of state. And he knows about things like what happens when a new particle becomes energetically favorable to create. And what happens when the energy states for the decay products for that particle are all filled by things in the plasma. (Spoiler: It makes a big difference to the equation of state.) But I didn't think he might have just plucked this stuff out of his memory. I assumed he had to go look up what "Newtonian polytrope" meant, just like I did.

Then in my second year of grad school I attended a conference. Weinberg was a speaker. And there were several other people in the audience on the same general level as Weinberg. And they would ask him questions. And he would answer them. Stuff very far outside his exact topic that he was speaking on.

Yes, he can pull this stuff out of his memory. And accurately enough to answer questions on the fly. To the satisfaction of other profs and a room full of PhD candidates and post-docs. And in a way that a poor jet-lagged PhD candidate could understand and benefit from.

And that's a big part of why the man got a Nobel. He's brilliant in many areas, not just one narrow thing.

Or some anecdotes from my own studies. One of the courses I took in undergrad was coding in machine language and assembly language. This got me a job between 3rd and 4th year. Another class I took was coding in FORTRAN. This got me a job between undergrad and grad school. And has been highly useful in my work after university.

And the philosophy class and the religious studies class I took resulted in 100's of interesting hours of discussion with the guy who became my best friend. And thus gave me a huge amount of personal life enrichment.

Being narrow is probably a mistake. Treat university as an "all you can learn" buffet. Don't scorn learning anything. If you think it might be interesting, or beneficial, or "expanding," then at least look at it in the catalog. Yes, concentrate on your core topic. But support it with other stuff.
 
  • #9
DEvens
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About your second point, tests and evaluations and such. This is a much more complicated issue. Deciding which students should pass and which should take up dairy farming is a tough thing. And not all profs and not all schools do it well. And not all programs work equally well for all students.

If you find that a teaching method does not work for you, it is reasonable to try to influence things so that a better method is used. Maybe you can negotiate some arrangement that works better for you.

In undergrad (at University of Waterloo, in Ontario, Canada) there was a program with a name something like independent studies. Students would be guided by a prof and do much more of their work on their own than the typical student. Many fewer lectures, for example. Evaluation was by a combination of interviews and tests. And there were lab classes with special projects. My friend in this program was busy trying to make an infrared laser in his 2nd year. And he studied nearly all his material at his desk in his apartment rather than in classes. He took some classes, but mostly he read texts, wrote essays, and did tests.

Maybe your university has some such program you could look at? Maybe a nearby university does.
 
  • #10
Dr. Courtney
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The physics class is the weight room for the mind. A rigorous study of CM both produces a strong mind and also provides the student with more analytical tools in their toolbox for future studies and research.

In the real world of scientific research, it is very difficult to predict which paradigms and tools will prove most useful to a researcher in making experimental and theoretical progress. The tacit assumption in the OP is that future progress in a given field will be made with the same paradigms and tools most responsible for past progress in the same field. The history of science shows that assumption to be in error with many important counter examples.

My field of interest and PhD work were in atomic physics, where one would normally expect quantum mechanics to play a much larger role than classical mechanics. However, QM and CM were equally important in my PhD work and CM became increasingly important in my career after completing my PhD in atomic physics.

It is an error of youth and hubris not to listen to the elders who put curricula together based on decades of experience training scientists. I advise the students I mentor to put as many tools in their tool boxes as possible in their undergraduate years. Even the study of biology has been very important in how I've approached important problems in atomic physics.
 
  • #11
Vanadium 50
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First, I don't think five months at one university in one county is enough to condemn the entire "educational system".

Next, the idea that partway through your freshman year you know more about what a physicist needs to know than your professors sounds kind of dubious.

Third, sure, you can study what you want. Just don't expect your university to certify that you know everything a physics graduate should know.

Finally, the attitude that learning something that doesn't appear immediately useful is a horrible fate best avoided is not shared by the majority of successful physicists. You will be more likely to succeed if you adjust either your attitude or plans to be more aligned with each other. As an aside, most of my day is spent working on things that didn't even exist when I was in graduate school.
 
  • #12
WWGD
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Wrichik, you may want to read the book 'Range': Why generalist succeed in a specialized world, by David Epstein. https://duckduckgo.com/?q=range+by+david+epstein&t=ffnt&atb=v189-1&ia=shopping . The book covers your issue more broadly, i.e., it is not just about Physics.

It argues,(and documents, i.e.,provides support for) as its subtitle suggests, in favor of having a broad basis of knowledge and skills, over narrow specialization. Remember: A specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing.
 
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  • #13
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I remember seeing an interview with Linus Pauling on a TV kids show. He was asked how he had generated so many novel ideas. He said "I have a lot of ideas and I throw away the bad ones".
Ideas do no form in a vacuum. They cross-pollinate. You cannot know a priori what will be useful and what will not. More is always better and disparate facts are important. This requires breadth of knowledge.
Of course the "throwing out the bad ones" part requires a firm grasp of the fundamentals. The quicker you can dispatch a bad idea, the more effectively you can find the next good one. This requires depth of knowledge.
So please listen to all these wise folks and consume as much as you can.
 
  • #14
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In the real world of scientific research, it is very difficult to predict which paradigms and tools will prove most useful to a researcher in making experimental and theoretical progress. The tacit assumption in the OP is that future progress in a given field will be made with the same paradigms and tools most responsible for past progress in the same field. The history of science shows that assumption to be in error with many important counter examples.
Read this over and over until it sinks in.
 
  • #15
ZapperZ
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Having spent five months as an undergraduate with physics major, I found that there are two types of students who come to study physics: 1. For a job, and 2. For pursuing research. This thread is concerned with the second type only. Among many other problems, here are two that have concerned me the most in the past and at present.

#1: Teaching things that have no application in the student's field of interest

As an undergrad, I have to study classical mechanics (CM) in 1st semester. Now, I have taken some online courses in QM and QFT, read a number of books on these topics, and read papers on experimental particle physics research almost everyday. I never encounter CM while studying these topics. You need Lagrangian and Hamiltonian dynamics, but you don't need CM otherwise, right?

The fundamental question is, why can't the education system customize the syllabus according to a student's field of interest? The system is teaching me things that I most probably don't even need.

Now you might say that some things are to be studied as they are the basics. But what percentage of papers published every year in Physics are on/strictly require, as a prerequisite, classical mechanics? How many experimental particle physicists working on accelerators are required to derive moments of inertia of cylinders and cones? And how many string theorists require the derivation of Euler's equations in their work?

If the so-called "basics" are not applicable in the student's field of interest, why study them rigorously? The student can always study them himself if they are ever required, isn't it?

#2: Marks in exams guarantee knowledge and vice-versa

I am seriously interested in research, and am giving my best to prepare myself in my field of interest. I have spoken to some people about this, but no one seems interested unless I have great qualifications. Tell me: does marks guarantee knowledge? How can the marks in an exam determine my knowledge and ability to do research?

I get a paper of 50 marks full of questions in classical mechanics. If I am unable to answer, they draw the conclusion that I am not meant for physics. How is this a fair judgement? I can't do the difficult problems in CM, but I can read, understand and apply what I have learnt in QM. And with some help, I believe I will be able to learn advanced topics as well. Why am I being forced to study and being judged on topics which neither interest me, nor are applicable in my field of interest?

If you test a physicist, who works with accelerators, on renormalization, will that be a proper way of judging his/her knowledge?

What are your thoughts on these?
You are correct. The educational system is failing you. You should bail out.

Zz.
 
  • #16
symbolipoint
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Look again at posts #13 and #15.
Students may not know what they will later want to know. Students have choices. Maybe one of the choices is to choose some engineering courses, at least, if one has chosen Physics as his major field. Easier to choose some practical courses while still a student than to graduate and then figure what you would have wanted to know, and try to return to school for some of that which you now feel you wanted to know. People in the working world do not always want to train you. Having MORE education in MORE things could make you easier to train.
 
  • #17
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My personal view on a university study is: every course you take gives you a tool/a new way to think about something/etc. The bigger your toolbox, the more problems you can solve.

Imagine that you are doing research and you can't draw the conclusion that solves the question because you missed a basic tool! That's not something a good scientist can afford.
 
  • #18
Dr Transport
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You are correct. The educational system is failing you. You should bail out.
Yes, please do and then come back and tell those of us who slogged through the type of curriculum you are railing against that became successful how successful you are without the background knowledge in the field.
 
  • #19
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Yes, please do and then come back and tell those of us who slogged through the type of curriculum you are railing against that became successful how successful you are without the background knowledge in the field.
I think you missed the irony that ZZ intended. At least that's how I read ZZ's post.
 
  • #20
Dr Transport
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I was being sarcastic also.....
 
  • #21
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I missed that. Since you quoted ZZ's post, I thought your reply was directed to him...
 
  • #22
Dr Transport
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I missed that. Since you quoted ZZ's post, I thought your reply was directed to him...

All's good.... sometimes my sarcasm is missed.
 
  • #23
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The last five posts, from 18 through 22, are just. . .

Too good to pass up . . .




Carry on. . . . :DD . :DD

.
 
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  • #24
ZapperZ
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All's good.... sometimes my sarcasm is missed.
I didn't miss it, but I doubt that the OP will get it.

Zz.
 
  • #25
Dr Transport
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agreed
 

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